« if you touch me
you'll understand what happiness is
look, a new day has begun »
— Barbra Streisand, Memory
- ✿ -
Louis was one of the lucky ones. He was able to find a job right out of college as a school teacher, and regardless of whether or not he was passionate for his occupation, he was well off and couldn't find it in his delicate soul to complain. It was March of 1946, one year following the dreadful second world war when he applied to teach at an American college. His life wasn't headed in any particular direction, and for several months heretofore he'd been craving a change of environment. Unsurprisingly, due to his astounding resumé, and bilingual capabilities, the university had contacted him almost immediately and suggested he come for an interview.
On the twelfth of July, 1947, Louis arrived in the small county of Ramsdale. He had pre- arrangements to stay with a distant relative of his uncle, but upon arrival he discovered their estate was no longer in standing due to a terrible fire that occurred late that same spring. Unfortunately, no one had remembered to contact him so he could orchestrate other accommodations.
However, his uncle's second cousin's wife suggested he take up residence in her close friend's home, seeing as the woman had recently lost her husband and was searching for a tenant to help pay the rent. He spent the night in a local motel and the very next day he took a taxicab to Ms. Anne Cox's home. It was a calm, suburban surrounding, a brick house with a red mailbox and equally rosy shudders, a little sign lodged in the freshly trimmed front yard reading, 'Tenant Wanted'. Louis opened the gate of the picket fence, dragging his suitcase behind him as he took hesitant steps along the stone path.
"Mr. Tomlinson!" An amiable grin, gentle eyes and long brown hair welcomed him at the front door. The woman, Anne, was in a pink checkered dress and a blue apron —which she quickly folded and tossed aside the moment he entered the house, a blush adorning the corners of her face and fingers that wound nervously around her soft hands.
"Ms. Cox," He greeted, removing his hat, shaking her hand.
"I'm very pleased to make your acquaintance. I wasn't expecting you until noon! I was going to bake a pie, you see," She hurriedly explained, moving to take his luggage from him.
"Oh no I can get this, Ma'am. I wouldn't want to put you out of your way," Louis smiled sweetly at the woman. She quirked an eyebrow, her lips parting in surprise.
"Well, what a gentleman. Are you sure? It's no trouble. You are my guest, after all,"
"I think... I'd like to see the house first? Before I decide-" Louis smoothed his hand over his hair, cradling his hat to his chest. It was a beautiful house, but it wasn't as close to the city as he would have hoped– and he wasn't sure if he'd be able to manage the commute in the time between the commencement of the fall session and the opening of the university boarding facility.
"Of course! No, I apologize, I'm so foolish. I'll certainly give you the tour first," She laughed brightly, wiping her clammy hands against her skirt. Louis nodded his head in return, turning to store his hat on the hook at the top of her iron coat rack.
"Shall we?" Anne then gestured to the stairwell. Louis left his suitcase along the wall beside the stairs so he didn't have to lug it back down if he decided not to stay here. He then proceeded up the stairs behind her to the second floor.
"This is a fairly new home, built just within the last twenty years. My husband had the bathroom remodeled about two years ago," the woman informed him, pushing open the door to the bathroom at the top of the steps. It was immaculate, midmorning sunlight from the single window illuminating the sparkling glass mirror and perfect porcelain tub.
"This is what they call a Jack and Jill model, which is a bathroom that connects the two extra bedrooms," She spoke as Louis glanced up and down the hallway, captivated by some of the paintings and photographs.
"So you'll have to share the bathroom with my son," Anne turned back around, offering him a tender, almost apologetic smile. Louis honed his attention back onto the woman, his brow furrowing as he processed her words.
"I'm sure that won't be a problem," He shrugged as Anne closed the door behind her, continuing down the hallway. The woman cleared her throat.
"I noticed you were interested in these portraits? That right there is my husband — well, was... I suppose. Everyone keeps telling me to take them down, but I feel like that would be disrespectful. He's still very dear to our hearts," Anne spoke respectfully as she ran an idle finger over the frame. Louis nodded.
"And that's Des and I the day we got married. Back in 1928," Louis smirked at the image of Anne bridal style in a brawny man's arms, kissing his cheek and waving to the camera. It was a precious moment.
The woman sighed as she resumed the tour, ushered Louis past the first two doors and to the third. It must have been the guest room, Louis's brain inducted.
"This is where you would be staying, writing, studying— whatever you plan on doing here this summer in preparation for your teaching," She walked into the bedroom, drawing the navy blue curtains up to let the sunlight in. Louis surveyed the space. It wasn't too cramped, with an oak chest sat between the two windows, a twin bed against the back wall and a desk against the wall opposite that. Louis could easily envision himself waking up here, detailing his notes, working on his french literature.
"So... what do you think?" Anne wondered, her lips curling, fingers folding together in anticipation.
"It's a lovely home, truly. I especially appreciate the view from my room. Your garden is beautiful," He noted as he slipped his index along the fabric of the curtain, peering out into the backyard.
"Oh yes! You must come see my lilies. They're a deal breaker for sure," She squealed in delight, beckoning him toward the door. Louis laughed to himself at her enthusiasm, quickly following the young woman back down the stairs, through the foyer and out to the veranda.
"I've just recently taken up gardening. Some of my girl friends suggested it would be good to help take my mind off of Desmond's death. But while I've grown quite attached to my plants, they are no substitute for human interaction," Anne said, her voice light, yet laced with an underlying sadness. Louis could tell almost immediately that the woman was isolated here in this home, accosted with daily reminders of her late lover. He wondered if she had many friends, duties and activities to keep her occupied throughout the week. She was an attractive woman, a little homey, but pretty nonetheless. There was no doubt in Louis's mind that she could find someone to fill the void of loneliness.
"That is true, I suppose. Hobbies give you a sense of purpose, though - one even sadness should never be able to encroach upon," Louis thought, closing the back door behind him as Ms. Cox stepped outside, her short black heels clacking against each wooden slab.
"You certainly have a way with words, Mr. Tomlinson," Anne tucked a stray piece of her dark hair behind her ear.
"I feel the same way about my writing. It's always been there to organize my thoughts, polarize my inhibitions, help me work through the more challenging decisions of my career and life as a whole. I wish you the same success, Ms. Cox," Louis praised, squinting in the morning glow of the patio. Anne flushed slightly, placing her hands on her hips.
"Well thank you, Louis. And please, call me Anne," she smiled, pausing for a second before sidestepping into the yard, waving him along.
Louis stuffed his hands into his pants pockets as he followed her into the garden, tracing the stone path through her rows of white lilies and lavender, dark rose bushes, vegetable gardens and sunflower patches. Louis awed at her dedication, indulging her conversation through her trips to the farmer's market and to her methods of choosing proper fertilizer until she turned to the left, calling his attention up to her large, twenty foot tall oak tree. Louis lifted his forearm to shield his eyes from the sunlight.
"This one is Harry's favorite. The little devil likes to jump from it while I'm gardening and scare the life out of me," she huffed indignantly. Louis frowned at the thought. He glanced up slowly, wondering how it was possible for anyone to climb the tree– the lowest branches were still too high for he alone to reach. In the corner of his eye, he just briefly caught a glimpse of dark curls between the branches and sunbeams.
Louis squinted harder, surveying the tree once more to see if he'd maybe imagined it. But he then found himself staring into the most beautiful pair of green eyes he'd ever seen. They were rich and earthy, like the opulent yards Ms. Cox spent so much of her time tending to. His lips were delicately heart shaped, skin creamy and porcelain, his wild jungle of dark brown curls adorning his temples, just lightly brushing the tips of his ears. He was immaculately camouflaged, like the dangerous predators of the forest.
The boy peered through the shadows and leaves, his pale arms folded on top of the thick branch. He blinked slowly, cocking his curious young head a bit to the right as he scrutinized Louis's appearance. The older man gulped hard, immediately flushing around the collar.
The boy held Louis's gaze as he gradually sat up to straddle the branch, his beautifully bare chest coming into view. He dusted a few stuck pieces of bark from his elbows, resting the back of his head against the tree. His thighs were clothed by a pair of khaki shorts, torn at the hem. He absentmindedly fiddled with the tears, then reached up to scratch his blunt nails against his sternum. He dangled his feet down, knocking his heels against the trunk as he pushed his index finger up against his lips, indicating for Louis to keep his presence a secret.
But the man could barely move, let alone breathe or part his lips in a sentence. Louis could feel his heart palpating madly behind his ribcage, his eyelids rapidly blinking to try to erase the stain of this Harry from his vision, but all efforts proved useless. The boy was terrifyingly real, hanging from the tree like a woodland dryad or a nymphette of some sort, his skin flushed with heat, eyes sleepily hooded.
Louis knew in that moment his own feeble existence on this god-forsaken planet would nevermore be the same. He could feel his past, present and future all catching up to him as a rude and caustic awakening, violently tearing him from his temperance and thrusting him into sudden plight. All at once he was reduced to an invalid— confounded with a million variant emotions, unable to breathe, unable to form coherent thoughts, to move his lips around a word or phrase.
Louis just couldn't stop himself from staring - and he worried he would remain forever frozen in this moment, lost betwixt the folds of time - before Anne whipped back around to him, tugging at his wrist.
"Oh I just have to show you my maple tree! I picked it up from the market last week. It should be big enough to compete with that old oak in a few years," She bursted, searching his distant eyes. Louis shook himself back into cognizance of the current surrounding, lightly pinching his arm to redefine his grasp on reality.
"Um, yes that sounds—" He began, unsure of how he intended to conclude the sentiment.
Bless his soul, because just then, Harry pounced down from the tree and landed nimbly between them, pushing a tiny, unthreatening roar from his chest.
"Oh my G—" Anne started to swear, her face burning with embarrassment as her young boy broke out into a fit of giggles, dimples – dimples, Louis heart constricted – protruding from the corners of his cheeks.
"Gotcha!" Harry laughed, poking his finger at his mother's chest. Louis watched the boy fondly, some strong adoration already settling in the pit of his stomach. He couldn't yet find the words to describe it, but he knew Harry's bright, innocent eyes were also the home of deep, twisted curiosities. There was a mischief in his youthful motives, an intrinsic desire to break the rules. It reminded Louis of his own adolescence.
"Harry Edward Styles, I thought I told you not to do that again!" She exploded, picking up a fallen twig and using it to swat at her son's posterior. The boy's top row of teeth sank into his bottom lip as he passed a gleeful glance over to Louis. The older man's heart tightened in his chest.
'God, he's magnificent,'
And he wasn't even sure why. Like, he'd just met Harry, just came to the realization that this boy was a living, breathing form– and he already knew the child's spirit would hold some bold significance and span the infinite.
Then young Harry was scampering barefoot across the yard, drenching himself in the mist of the sprinklers, trotting up the porch and disappearing into the house. Anne muttered something about tracking dirt and grass across the kitchen tiles, her voice plagued with impatience for the child's behavior.
"He's such a pest," she grumbled, smoothing out the wrinkles of her dress and regaining her composure. Louis exhaled in the boy's wake, utterly starstruck by his very existence.
"As I was saying... I planned on planting the maple sometime in the next week. But I was thinking, if you liked it here and decided to stay, maybe you could find the time to help me? I understand if you—"
"Actually, I'm confident I would like it here. My only concern was the distance from the college... But I'd certainly love to become acquainted with you, as well as your garden. How much did you say the room was?" Louis smiled, tucking his itinerary back into his suit jacket pocket.